Old Post: On Non-Profit Administration

[Originally posted December 2005]

Dear friend,

I am honored that you would seek my advice, as I have heard of your many years of faithful service in various social services capacities. I too come from the non-profit sector, and although my career span is dwarfed by yours, I too have come across the same pattern for public programs that you described to me last week: cheerful rhetoric in the beginning, gradual disappointment in the middle, and fatigue at the end. So I hope we can keep up this dialogue so we can both become more effective leaders.

May I indulge you in some stories from my life in non-profit? I trust you’re too mature for pithy encouragements, and that you’re wise enough to take my stories and extrapolate the underlying principles to your situation, rather than simply repeating what I did. I also want to exhort you to reach back into your past experiences for situations you were in and decisions you made that can help you figure out what to do in the present.

Let me organize my examples by using an old Roman phrase: “quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando” (who, what, where, with what, why, how, when):

Who? The first question to ask in cracking a tricky situation is to identify all the players and understand their perspectives. When I first became Executive Vice President at The Enterprise Center, I met with each person on staff, from president to janitor, to get to know them better, find out what made them tick, and learn their take on the agency. Many people appreciated the gesture, seeing it as a way I was reaching out to all staff and making them feel their opinions counted. I certainly did those interviews for that reason. But I also did it so I could know better how to influence people to do what I needed them to do to benefit the organization. You too may need to take an audit of the key people involved in this non-profit and in this new initiative. Particularly with the new director, you’ll want to find out what’s driving her, so that you can better persuade her.

What? This may be the most important question you’ll ask yourself: what am I trying to do here? Is it to do what you think is best for the organization? Is it to please your boss (in this case, client)? Is it to advance your career? I know all too well that sometimes it’s hard, if not impossible, to simultaneously accomplish all three things. One time, I had calculated that our agency would need to lay off three people to stay afloat. I had to sell my boss on the decision to do layoffs, which she was loath to do, and on the three people to lay off, at least one of whom she was close to and did not want to let go. I had to answer for myself that my job was not to carry out my boss’ preferences, or to do what was easiest for me, but to make the hard decision because it was best for the company. My story has a happy ending: the layoffs, though painful, helped us survive, and hindsight has proven them to be the right move. Even better, my boss respected me for holding firm to the decision despite her misgivings, and I grew as a leader from the experience. It sounds like you’re facing a similar dilemma as I faced. Before you can effectively weigh your options, you have to answer for yourself what your job is.

Why? I’m going out of order from the Roman list because this question follows logically from the previous one in your case. In other words, as I’ve exhorted you to ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of this situation, so you should press the new director about what she’s trying to accomplish. Why is she doing this? Sometimes, in asking this question, you can better please your boss/client without having to do something you think won’t work. Like you, I had a boss who loved setting unrealistic goals, to the point that I would cringe when she would speak in public sometimes, lest she make a bold statement that my staff and I would then have to back up. It was only after I learned the “why” behind her claims – it was to push her and her employees to shed complacency and stretch towards greatness – that I was able to integrate this part of her leadership style with my work under her. If you simply ask your client, “why,” the answer you get might help you know what to do with this program you’re pessimistic about.

Where? With what? When? I’m lumping these three questions because together they form a possible hedge for your situation. In other words, if your client insists on a splashy new program that you think is destined to flop, you can contain the fallout by being strategic with the “where,” the “with what,” and the “when.” I had a situation, the details of which I’m not at liberty to share with you, where a key staffer had an idea for a program that I quickly gathered was not worth doing. But I also gathered, for various reasons (sorry I have to be so vague), that it would be worse to squelch this idea than to let it proceed. So I contained the potential damage by making sure it rolled out at a time and place that would cause minimal fanfare, and I limited the financial and human resources we allocated to the activity. You too might want to think about how you can work the “where,” the “with what,” and the “when” if you think you’re stuck with a lemon.

How? Sometimes, no matter the people, motives, or resources, it boils down to how you do something. This last question integrates all the others, in that you have to answer all the others so that you know “how” to proceed. Again, I encourage you to consider my examples as well as those from your own career, not to repeat the same actions but to draw out the right lessons. At this stage in your career, you can afford to trust your instincts; having analyzed the situation using the questions and examples above, you can be confident that you’ll find the answer to the question, “how?”

I conclude by wishing you luck. You and I both know that sometimes it does boil down to luck, but that you can make your own luck by doing things the right way and being ready. I sincerely hope that my comments will help you make your own luck. Keep me posted on what you decide to do, and don’t hesitate to call on me again. Good luck.

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